Thursday, May 26, 2022

NFC South free agency grades: Tom Brady’s return gives Buccaneers huge edge as division struggled to improve

The NFC South is going to be a tough division to watch this season, unless you’re a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan or enjoy watching Tom Brady improve his status as the “Greatest Of All Time” every week. Brady’s return shifted the balance of power back to Tampa Bay in a division that could have been the ultimate wild card this year. 

Instead, the Atlanta Falcons started their rebuild by trading Matt Ryan and Sean Payton departed after 15 seasons as the New Orleans Saints head coach. The Carolina Panthers were one of the worst teams in football at the end of last season and did little to improve the roster over the past week. 

There were signings in the NFC South, but most of them belong to the Buccaneers attempting to reload their roster in order to win their second Super Bowl title in three years (and Brady’s eighth overall). This division is starting to go through a rebuilding phase, which was evident by the free agent signings of each team (or lack thereof). 

Let’s give out the early report cards for each team in the NFC South after the first wave of free agency. The Buccaneers certainly affected the curve. 

Buccaneers: B+

Notable additions: WR Russell Gage, G Shaq Mason, CB Logan Ryan

Notable losses: G Alex Cappa, S Jordan Whitehead, TE O.J. Howard

The Buccaneers already had a successful offseason once Tom Brady ended his 40-day retirement, keeping the Super Bowl window intact. Jason Licht deserves a ton of credit for finding a way to keep wide receiver Chris Godwin and cornerback Carlton Davis. The Buccaneers franchise tagged Godwin then signed him to a contract extension and found a way to re-sign Davis to a  three-year deal. Leonard Fournette is also back on a three-year deal, as he emerges as the featured back making $7 million per season.

Brady finding a way to get Gage to join Tampa Bay for three years makes the Buccaneers’ passing game better, especially since Godwin is still recovering from ACL surgery. Acquiring Mason from the New England Patriots for only a fifth-round pick compensates the loss of Cappa, but Ali Marpet’s shocking retirement hurts the offensive line a bit. Ryan Jensen re-signing hours before free agency certainly had a lot to do with Brady returning. 

Finding a way to retain everyone was always going to be a challenge for the Buccaneers, who have an estimated $8.8 million in salary cap space. Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh are still free agents, but some of that cap space is going to Rob Gronkowski if he decides to return. The Buccaneers will have to address the defensive line in the draft, regardless if they are able to bring one of Pierre-Paul or Suh back. 

There’s some work to do here, but the Buccaneers had a good start to free agency with all things considered.  

Saints: B-

Notable additions: S Marcus Maye, S Daniel Sorensen 

Notable losses: T Terron Armstead, S Marcus Williams

New Orleans deserves credit for getting under the salary cap after being $75 million over the threshold in February. The Saints were never going to be able to retain Armstead or Williams as a result of their cap issues, two of the team’s best players over the last several years. Losing those players were hits the Saints were willing to take. 

New Orleans was able to replace Williams with Maye, although Maye is coming off a torn Achilles. The other major free agent signing was bringing back Jameis Winston at $14 million per season — after the team’s failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson. Even though Winston was a fallback option, the Saints were 5-2 in his seven starts last year as he throw 14 touchdown passes to three interceptions. 

Winston makes the Saints competent if he continues his strides from last season. He’ll be getting Michael Thomas back too and the Saints offensive line will still be strong even with the loss of Armstead. 

Hard to count out the Saints because of their defense, which will play a major role if they go to the playoffs. New Orleans is worse than it was at the end of last season, but still have an opportunity to compete for a playoff berth.

Panthers: C-

Notable additions: G Austin Corbett, S Xavier Woods, P Johnny Hekker, OLB Damien Wilson, C Bradley Bozeman, WR Rashard Higgins

Notable losses: EDGE Haason Reddick, DT DaQuan Jones

The Panthers enter another offseason without a franchise quarterback after Sam Darnold was a disaster in 2021. They put the eggs in the Darnold basket by giving him his $18.858 million fifth-year option for this season prior to the start of last year, a decision that significantly hurt the organization in their pursuit of Deshaun Watson.

This offseason was about Carolina trying to get Watson, which general manager Scott Fitterer failed to accomplish. Carolina was able to improve the offensive line with the additions of Corbett and Bozeman on the interior, who will be vital with Christian McCaffrey coming back healthy. How the Panthers will perform in 2022 will be dependant on McCaffrey’s health, as he’s missed 23 games over the past two seasons. 

Carolina struck out on Watson, so now the Panthers will look at the quarterbacks in the draft with the No. 6 overall pick. There’s a good group of pass catchers in D.J. Moore, Terrace Marshall, and Robby Anderson for a young signal-caller to thrive. Carolina could also use an upgrade at tight end, which is why the Ian Thomas contract extension was a head scratcher. 

Losing Reddick to the Philadelphia Eagles was a significant blow to the pass rush, but retaining Jackson was vital to the fourth-ranked pass defense in 2021. With the deep edge rusher class, there was little need for the Panthers to pay top dollar for a free agent (unless it was Reddick). 

The Panthers did have the second-ranked defense last year in terms of yards allowed. This team shouldn’t be as bad as their 5-12 record indicated. Striking out on Watson significantly hurt Carolina’s offseason, as the Panthers shift to “Plan B.” Running it back with Darnold isn’t good with head coach Matt Rhule on the hot seat. 

Falcons: D

Notable additions: QB Marcus Mariota, CB Casey Hayward, RB Damien Williams, G Elijah Wilkinson

Notable losses: QB Matt Ryan, LB Foye Oluokun, WR Russell Gage, LS Josh Harris, TE Hayden Hurst, EDGE Dante Fowler Jr.

The Falcons finally decided to go through with a rebuild that should have started several years ago. Atlanta sent Matt Ryan off to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2022 third-round draft pick — not nearly enough compensation for a franchise quarterback. Ryan is still playing at a high level, which makes a Day 2 draft pick underwhelming for a team that’s building toward the future. 

The Falcons signed Mariota to a two-year contract, giving him one last opportunity to start in the league. Mariota will be reunited with head coach Arthur Smith from his days in Tennessee, so the offense will be familiar for him. The Falcons were able to bring back Cordarrelle Patterson, who should put up numbers again as a running back in Smith’s offense — with Williams as a power option. Outside of Kyle Pitts, the Falcons don’t have many reliable pass-catching options. Receiver will be the focus in the draft after losing Gage to the division-rival Buccaneers. 

Signing Hayward was vital to the defense, but he’s 32 years old and isn’t in the long-term plans. The Falcons secondary is the bright spot of their defense, but that isn’t saying much for a unit with no pass rush and finished as the 29th-ranked defense. 

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in Atlanta, just to even be competitive this year. The Falcons are $3.2 million over the salary cap and are carrying a dead cap hit of $40.525 million this year with Ryan’s contract. Atlanta will have plenty of salary cap space to rebuild the roster in 2023, but this year is set up to be a rough one for the Falcons. 

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